One of the first words a newcomer in the Netherlands will learn is “fiets”. De “fiets” (bicycle) is the favourite mode of transport of the Dutch. No wonder, because the country is as flat as a pancake.
Not only is cycling a relatively safe way to get around, but it also benefits your physical and mental health. Besides, in cities, it gets you to your destination so much quicker than a car. On top of that, the country is blessed with a network of attractive cycle paths and lanes, taking the cyclist past picturesque villages, through quiet dunescapes and along spacious polder panoramas with exquisite sights and restful stopping places.
So, do you want to do like the Dutch? Better get familiar with the following words and phrases every cyclist in the Netherlands should know:
“Fiets” or “rijwiel”?
“Rijwiel” is the old-fashioned word for “fiets”. Both words originated around 1870. “Rijwiel” was the posh word and “fiets” was used by the average man. Once the bicycle had become affordable and popular among people from the working-class, the posh word “rijwiel” was overtaken by the more common “fiets”. I don’t know anyone who calls their bike a “rijwiel” anymore.
The word “rijwiel” literally means “riding wheel”. In 1867, the first real “rijwiel” was invented by two Parisians: father and son Michaux. They named their invention “vélocipède”, which means “fast foot” because it was derived from the two Latin words: “velox” (fast) and “pes” (foot). In 1869, a Mr Burgers started the first Dutch factory of wooden “vélocipèdes” in Deventer.
Nowadays, each Dutch household has three bikes on average. This year, the total number of bikes in the Netherlands is an estimated 22,8 million (there are over 17 million Dutchmen) and the number of e-bikes is almost 2 million. What’s more, on average, a Dutchie cycles 888 kilometres per year. In total, the Dutch cycle over 15 billion kilometres per year. That’s a lot of cycling!
The strange little word “fiets”
But where does the word “fiets” come from? Is it an onomatopoeic word, an echo of fffttttssss, the sound of silent velocity? Or was it short for “vélocipède”, a word that the average Dutchman could probably not pronounce: “Vielesepee, fiesselepee, fietsepee, fiets…”? Was it a reference to Mr Elie Cornelis Viets who rented out the first “vélocipèdes” in 1889? Or is it from the eastern or southern Dutch dialect, where “vietsen’ means “move or run fast”? Your guess is as good as any linguist’s.
If you want to know more about the origins of the “fiets”, so far, two books have been published. In 1996, lexicographer Ewoud Sanders published a book simply called: “Fiets! De geschiedenis van een vulgair jongenswoord” (Bike! The history of a vulgar boy’s word). And in 2018, popular linguist Wim Daniëls published “De taal van de fiets. Liefdesverklaring aan het stalen ros” (The language of the bike. Ode to the metal horse).
In the Netherlands, each type of “fiets” has its own unique name: “omafiets”, “stadsfiets”, “sportfiets”, “racefiets”, “ov-fiets”, “bakfiets”, “kinderfiets”… What kind of bike do you have? Is it a new shiny one or a rusty second-hand one?
“Zo heb je een fiets, zo heb je niets” (One moment you have a bike, the next moment you have nothing)
This expression is a sad fact of life in the Netherlands because there are so many “fietsendieven” (bicycle thieves). How many bikes are stolen each year is difficult to say because not everyone reports a theft to the police (probably only 30 percent of all thefts). It is assumed that the number of stolen bikes is between 468.000 and 772.000 bikes per year. So, beware! Use two locks, or, even better, use a guarded bicycle parking place.
“Ga toch fietsen!” (Go jump in a lake)
If someone says this to you, you have probably said something unbelievable. For instance: you have just bought a new sports bike for, say, 1.500 euros. If this is the case, you can expect this reaction. Why? Not many Dutch people will spend that much money on a new bicycle because of the risk of it being stolen.
Speaking of buying bikes, in 2017, 975.000 new bikes were sold in the Netherlands, of which 663.000 were new “ordinary” bikes and 294.000 new e-bikes. The average price of a new ordinary bike at this time was 608 euros, whilst an e-bike cost 1.948 euros.
“Wat heb ik nou aan mijn fiets hangen?” (What’s all of this?)
You can’t cycle… “Wat heb ik nou aan mijn fiets hangen?” a Dutchman might say in astonishment. The Dutch are mad about bikes, that’s for sure. There are so many “fietspaden” (bicycle paths) in the country: a fascinating network of 35.000 kilometres. If you’re not used to cycling, try a tour in nature.